Flexible Minerals: Self-Assembled Calcite Spicules with Extreme Bending Strength

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Science  15 Mar 2013:
Vol. 339, Issue 6125, pp. 1298-1302
DOI: 10.1126/science.1216260

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Glass or metal fibers can show incredible flexibility. Natalio et al. (p. 1298; see the Perspective by Sethmann) used the protein silicatein-α, which is responsible for the biomineralization of silicates in sponges, to guide the formation of spicules made of calcite. These synthetic spicules could be bent to a high degree because of their inherent elasticity, whilst retaining the ability to guide light.


Silicatein-α is responsible for the biomineralization of silicates in sponges. We used silicatein-α to guide the self-assembly of calcite "spicules" similar to the spicules of the calcareous sponge Sycon sp. The self-assembled spicules, 10 to 300 micrometers (μm) in length and 5 to 10 μm in diameter, are composed of aligned calcite nanocrystals. The spicules are initially amorphous but transform into calcite within months, exhibiting unusual growth along [100]. They scatter x-rays like twinned calcite crystals. Whereas natural spicules evidence brittle failure, the synthetic spicules show an elastic response, which greatly enhances bending strength. This remarkable feature is linked to a high protein content. With nano-thermogravimetric analysis, we measured the organic content of a single spicule to be 10 to 16%. In addition, the spicules exhibit waveguiding properties even when they are bent.

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